The Death of Book Design

by | Jan 22, 2011

Book Design. (1452 – 2011). Born near Mainz, Germany, Book Design came of age in the heady atmosphere of Venice in the Italian Renaissance. He went through a rocky adolescence when he seemed to lose track of his roots, but matured into the confident and gracious Book Design of the twentieth-century’s Golden Age of Letterpress.

He grew up among the presses of his uncle Aldus Manutius, fetching lampblack and sharpening stones for Francesco, the punchcutter in the back of the shop who was always busy fashioning new typefaces to keep the levers on the big presses cranking.

Later he got caught up in a rough group, and spent his youth in the company of a delinquent named Billy Caslon and his henchman, Smooth Johnny Baskerville. Book Design barely escaped this period with his ligatures intact.

In the fullness and power of maturity, Book Design was infected with the deadly photo-offset virus. Undermining the connection between metal type and the pages of books, the virus slowly sapped the life from Book Design until, in his delirium, he could no longer resist the siren call of arbitrary placement on the page, quick and easy changes to basic layouts, and the promise of color, color and more color.

The virus was eventually brought under control, and Book Design entered one, final productive period of life. In an explosion of creativity in which old forms and standards were enlivened by the new offset techniques, Book Design reached an acme of achievement in the creation of books.

He learned to bring the disparate elements of typography and photo-lithography into harmony, achieving an often stunning frontispiece to his reality. All was well once again in the world of Book Design.

However, it would not last long. Book Design finally succumbed to a far deadlier virus that swept the world, infecting everything: digitization. Objects—formerly a part of the real world—slowly decayed into a series of “1”s and “0”s (whatever they are). Book Design was no different from Music, Art, or even Typing.

The infection proved to be too much. When it was discovered the virus was of the deadly verdana variety, hope was essentially lost. As the world watched, Book Design’s ePub count was rising dangerously fast.

As fonts—the basic building blocks of life—began to bend and warp under the pressure of digitization, the book itself wavered and then collapsed.

In the final stages of the disease, ePubs take over the bookstream, and books lose everything that had made them books to begin with. Book Design’s paper wasted away, and the covers that everyone had so admired faded to a collection of unreadable moire patterns.

One night, little noticed by any of his friends, under a Smashwords moon, Book Design breathed his last. He had dropped his serifs and was gone.

Oh, some say he was out where he shouldn’t have been, looking for a pixel he could love, when he fell into some sort of meatgrinder and that’s what killed him. But it’s just a story people tell to scare the little ones.

Book Design had been sick and losing density for many years. His ppi count was way down, and he was showing stress around his spine.

It’s no wonder. All the smiling sadists with their instruments of torture, their Kindles and iBooks, their Nooks and Tabs, had been unleashed on his body. Right in public, on busses and in coffee shops, they crushed and stretched his text, madly changing from Arial to Verdana to Baskerville and back again, viciously reflowing his insides over and over. It was just too much for his system to bear.

When a little menu popped up offering to change an entire book to Cochin in one instant, friends of Book Design knew the end wasn’t far off.

Book Design is survived by his stepsons, Digit Al Typography and E. Books.

There are rumors occasionally that Book Design has been sighted here or there in an old barn in Derbyshire, or off the coast of San Francisco, but no conclusive proof has ever been offered. The trade in so-called relics, like the phony Folio of Fortunata, with its promise of perfect alignment and infinite registration, are nothing but hoaxes perpetrated on the weak-minded.

In lieu of fleurons, donations can be made to the Old Typographers Rest Home and 24-hour Internet Cafe.


Photo by Ann Kinney

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. K Herbel


    Awsome stuff!…But I think I saw Book Design putting ethel in his cherry ’65 Mustang at the 7-11. He was wearing a fastfood uniform and paper hat.

  2. Jean Ann Geist

    Just sent my first self-pubbed novel off to the printer, with the able assistance of a fantastic book designer. As a former librarian, I watched the death of the card catalog–but the printed book? Say it ain’t so, Joe!

  3. Laurel L. Russwurm

    “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

    ~Mark Twain

    Don’t be too hasty. Physical books made of paper are far from finished.
    What’s more, there is very little chance of a coup de grâce so long as DRM is applied to eBooks. Many people like me will never trust our libraries to digital media that can be wiped out by an obsolete device or recalled/deleted by a manufacturer without our permission (as Amazon famously did with their Kindle version of 1984. []

    I grew up in a world where books were portable. If I have invested thousands of dollars in e-books that fit in one portable reader but am prevented from backing it up, that renders those books not portable. Forgetting a $20 hardcover in a cafeteria is an acceptable loss; forgetting an e-reader that would cost untold thousands to replace is not.

    Then, too, all my life I’ve been both a borrower and lender of books, and I’m not about to stop now. The idea that some e-publisher is going to allow me a finite number of “lends” of a book I have purchased is ludicrous.

    And even if they wise up and stop this nonsense, books will continue to need design. Right this minute I am working on self publishing my debut novel. This requires the creation of book design for the paper version of my book that I’ll be releasing via CreateSpace, as well as a book design for digital format(s). In addition to both of those, I’ve also been designing a dedicated blog “book blog design” from which I will be able to serialize my novel online.

    This all is a lot of work, and I am fortunate to have both the inclination and the artistic background to allow me to tackle this, although merely [gasp!] an author. Still, I can easily imagine that down the road my time will be better spent writing while independent book professionals handle my book designs.

    Remember those immortal words by baseball great Yogi Berra, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

    • Joel Friedlander

      Ah, yes, and ’twas also the great yogi Yogi who advised, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” a sentiment that seems to have been made real by the twin paths many books are taking right now. Good luck with the novel!

  4. Vic

    Hi Joel,
    I think you forgot the earliest bit of content, the pictures on rocks. It all started there.

    We are in a age where it is important to stay with time.

    About Book Designing, it is not dead. You are being harsh I think.

    The activity of Book Designing has become more challenging than ever before. Now the design is not just for the book but also for the ebook.

    Different things have evolved from the time, of metal plates with leadings to typesetting softwares with leadings.

    The concepts are the same, names and tools have changed.

    If book designing is dead, then education, communication, content creation, content relay, content sharing is dead.

    Print will never fade.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Vic, thanks for that, and for your optimism. Obviously, this article was written a bit “tongue in cheek” since most books are still produced by printing presses and require designers. I hope you are correct, it would make me happy.

  5. Paul Squires

    Hi Joel,

    As has been mentioned previously, this is a very profound and important post. We (Imperica) have published something on similar-but-different lines: the changing nature of cover design – for books and albums – in the age of digital.

    Thanks again for your post; I hope that it continues to stimulate thought and discussion.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Paul, thanks for the interesting link, I’ll check it out.

  6. Deb Dorchak

    Everything old shall be new again. As it is written, so shall it be done.

    You know, I was watching an episode on the Food Network about pizza and there was a time when all the traditional pizza makers were lamenting the fact that pizza was no longer pizza. What were all these things they called gourmet? Ridiculous. Tomato sauce and mozzarella on a hand-tossed crust, baked in an oven was the only way to go.

    After a few years the younger generations became curious about the “old ways” and since then there has been a resurgence to revive tradition.

    Will it happen for BD? I’m sure it will. At some point the bright shiny newness of the digital world will lose its appeal and some inquisitive young minds will seek out the masters on the mountain top.

    There you go. Book design and pizza on a Sunday morning. Doesn’t get much better than that.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Sunday morning pizza? Must be some new tradition I haven’t heard about yet. Hey, I spent years making pizza every Thursday night and it’s not that different from book design in some ways. I hope you’re right Deb, and the next generation of designers discovers the great book models that have inspired hundreds of years of their predecessors.

  7. James Byrd

    Nice job, Joel. But I think a resurrection is inevitable. The drek you see on the market right now is a natural phase that follows the sudden collapse of the barriers to entry that digital has made possible time and again. But it won’t last: readers are already complaining.

    For true readers (no, text messages don’t count), the quality of the reading experience is important. The very forces that drove print book design to it’s apex will do the same in the digital world eventually. Right now, e-book technology is raw, evolving, and frankly, embarassing.

    I’m not talking about so called “vooks” here either. Yes, multimedia is cool, but not what I want in an entertainment reading experience. For non-fiction? Sure. Add a video to show me how to solve my problem. But for fiction? Forget it! Don’t you dare disturb my reading flow and my engagement with the story.

    What you are getting at is a question of quality. In traditional publishing, quality was in the hands of the publishing gatekeepers. Not exactly an untarnished record, but hey, better than what we see flooding the e-book market now, where quality is in the hands of the [gasp!] author.

    I believe readers will vote with their dollars, and eventually, quality will win out. And by quality, I mean good editing and good design. The same thing happened with Web sites. FrontPage made everyone a “web developer” overnight who could produce a crap web site in mere moments. But if you want customers to take you seriously, you have to pay a *designer* to do it right!

    • Joel Friedlander

      James, thanks for your thoughtful comment. It seems like the question of quality is also a question of tools and techniques. Not only that, the basic premise of the ebook—where everything is malleable and reflowable and controllable by the user—would seem to pretty much eliminate design, so until there’s a way to influence what the end user sees on the screen of their ereader, I don’t see much room for design. But yes, quality will rise to the top, and I have no doubt that winners and losers will be decided in the marketplace.

  8. Betsy Gordon

    Joel —
    I agree wholeheartedly with Betty’s “three Bs”: it’s Brilliant, Bittersweet, and Brave. And, like Sackett, I can’t see myself giving up on books. There’s something so nourishing in a friendship where you trade books often, each knowing just what the other will enjoy. And I love “shopping” in my bookshelves (and on most horizontal surfaces in the house as well), to find a book I haven’t read for years and live through it again. There are always at least a dozen new ones I’ve bought still waiting for me to be in the right mood for them. When my current favorite fiction author comes out with a new book in the series, I pre-order it and read it as soon as it arrives; then I go back and read the other seven or eight big fat novels that preceded the new one. You can’t get that kind of rounded-off, satisfying experience with a Kindle and its kin.
    Naah, BD isn’t dead — only hibernating, waiting for the right season to stretch and yawn and come out once again to take up his rightful place in the world.

    Thanks for yet another superb article!


  9. Joel Friedlander

    Thanks everyone who came to pay their respects today. At least we have lots of page proofs to remember old BD by. Cheers!

  10. Mark LaFlamme

    But he looks so lifelike down in his hand held coffin.
    Beautifully written and disturbingly apt. Sending this to all my design friends who have been murmuring of this tragedy for years.
    Let us pray.

  11. Sackett

    Great article Joel…. But I will keep all my books to re-read and trade with others who will never go Kindle,i books, text, twitter, twax nor twain.
    Book Design survives…………. ;>)

  12. Janis

    Couldn’t have said it better. It was the Cochin part that really got me. Or as Ted Danson said on Bored to Death: “Magazines are dead, newspapers are dead, books are dead, the printed word is dead.” He was having a bad day. Book design has been my career since the 1970s. Thank goodness I get to “retire” just as it is at it’s lowest point.

  13. bettymingliu

    this is brilliant, joel. so bittersweet. and brave, considering the fact that your career is all about being thebookdesigner.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Betty, some days I feel like the proverbial buggy whip manufacturer watching the crowds following Henry Ford down main street as his “horseless carriage” rolls away into the sunset. But just some days.

  14. DJ Young

    Say it is so, Joel!

    This was cathartic – but reminds me that nothing so good can ever really be gone. It will rise up again, in small, dusty pockets of society where the iPad and the Kindle will never find an adapter.

  15. Michael N. Marcus

    Ol’ BD didn’t live in peace, and is unlikely to rest in peace.

    I expect him to be quickly reincarted in somewhat different form, bolder than Bodoni, strong as Elephant, slimmer than Gil Sans Condensed, as modern as Futura, as whimsical as a Dingbat, as ubiquitous as Arial and more Lucid than before — with a new set of ligatures. He’ll have keener kerning, sweeter swashes, smaller serifs and seldom will drop a cap or reverse a virgule.

    Although those who see no justification in proper word spacing will condemn BD as irrelevant, BD will welcomed back by his faithful supporters. I’ll polish my California Job Case and have some fresh fleurons for the parade.

    Michael N. Marcus
    — Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series:
    — “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),”



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